After criticism, new U regents up engagement

Christopher Aadland

As the University of Minnesota raises tuition after a failed bid to freeze costs while simultaneously trying to cut down on unnecessary spending, some state legislators are calling for the Board of Regents to be more critical of the administration’s priorities.
 
Influenced in part by the newest crop of regents and from pressure from state leaders, some regents said they plan to push to resolve unanswered questions about topics such as spending and research ethics that the school’s administration has been unclear about.
 
“This is long overdue. [The regents] are finally doing what the regents were created to do,” said Rep. Gene Pelowski Jr., DFL-Winona, adding that the board has been too trusting of the school’s administration in the past.
 
Pelowski said the three newest board members, Regents Thomas Anderson, Michael Hsu and Darrin Rosha, have pushed for answers from the University more than other regents.
 
Board chair Dean Johnson, who assumed the role last week, said he’s heard concerns from people outside of the University and plans to improve the board’s image while he leads the regents.
 
“This board wants to be engaged at a different level than we have in the past,” Johnson said at a board meeting last month. “The days of simply saying ‘yes’ are over.”
 
Criticism of indifference in decision making surfaced during the regent election process earlier this year and culminated last month during budget discussions between the regents and administration — discussions where regents, especially the three newest, questioned the proposed budget more intensely than in past years, Pelowski said. 
 
“All the boards asked tough questions, and I believe it’s healthy for both the board and the administration to challenge the status quo at times,” said University President Eric Kaler in an email statement.
 
This election cycle, stances on issues like allegedly excessive administrative expenses, the rising cost of higher education and human research ethics were factors
when selecting regents, said Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, a member of the Senate’s higher education committee and the Regent Candidate Advisory Council.
 
After lawmakers selected regents in March, they turned their attention to the University’s budget request, in which the school had asked for $65 million from the state to freeze tuition for in-state students.
 
But regents and administrators weren’t able to provide thorough answers about how the school spends its money, said Rosha, who previously served on the board in 1989-95 when he was a student at the University. He said the unsatisfactory answers contributed to an imbalance between the University’s allocation and the
 
Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, which received about $100 million more than the University.
 
“We have a strong directive from [legislators] to make sure the board is engaged,” he said. [Lawmakers last session] were not pleased with the level of clarity they received about our spending,” Rosha said.
 
Though the regents have approved Kaler’s initiatives, like reallocating $90 million in administrative costs and the implementation of a new strategic plan, Hsu said he’s unsure of how exactly the University will put the new policies in place.
 
“Right now, there’s no real strategy,” he said.
 
He said he hopes the board is able to chart out a way to approach the unanswered questions at a regents’ retreat later this week.
 
Administrators haven’t provided regents with enough information to guide the board, Rosha said, which has partly caused the board to be ineffective leaders.
 
He said regents were provided with more thorough information to guide decisions during his first stint on the board in the 1990s.
 
“We started from a point of substantially more [information from administrators],” Rosha said, adding that instead of detailed information and answers to questions, regents today receive vague responses.
 
While Johnson said it’s important for the board to hold administrators accountable for their decisions, the board should also be careful to not micromanage 
administrators.
 
Still, if regents wanted to improve the University, they wouldn’t hesitate to challenge administrators’ ideas, said Ardell Brede, chair of the Regents Candidate Advisory Council and mayor of Rochester, Minn.
 
He said he’s optimistic the new makeup of the board will reverse the perception that the regents aren’t engaged 
enough.
 
“I can’t think [the newest regents] are going to be just yes folks,” Brede said.